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Servant Leadership in a Nutshell

Approximate read time: 3 minutes

Servant leadership is an ancient concept that has been gaining steam in corporations, governments, and other organizations within the last two decades. Rather than providing another definition of WHAT servant leadership is, I want to take a minute to show you HOW servant leadership looks in life.

I am convinced that nearly everyone has had some experiences in life where a servant leader impacted them. Think about the people in your life to whom you feel fierce loyalty, the kind of person that you would drop everything to go and help if they needed it. Perhaps this is someone that you know intimately like a spouse, a parent, or sibling. Often it is a person that has been a paramount authority figure, like a coach, a boss, or a teacher. Sometimes it is a neighbor or a spiritual advisor.

Now, take a minute and write out a couple of words that you'd use to describe why you named these individuals.

I often ask this same question of the teams with which I work. Almost always, these words and themes are among those listed:






In my corner

Good listener


Helped me to become better


Each of these character traits is an element of servant leadership. Almost universally, we appreciate these characteristics. I'm convinced that at the root, it is because each of these characteristics is "others-focused." This intentional and unrelenting focus on others is the fundamental perspective held by all servant leaders.

Do you want to develop your servant leadership? It starts by merely treating others how you want to be treated. Look to the actions of those influential people in your life for clues.

Chances are, they listened to you and sincerely cared about your well-being. They were willing to invest the time, energy, and effort to help you discern the difference between your legitimate needs and your wants, and then did everything in their power to help you meet your needs. They gained your trust by sincerely caring for you. Simply put, they genuinely engaged in your life for your well being.

It is easy to see how this works in our families and our personal lives. In the workplace, the details might look a little different, but the others-focused root is the same. Do you sincerely care about the personal and professional goals of those with whom you work? Are you investing your time into helping those on your team succeed? How sure are you that those that report to you have confidence and clarity around your expectations of their performance? Have you consistently earned their trust by acting in their best interest?

At points in my career when I lulled myself into a self-focused mindset, I expected a lot of people without ever taking the time to engage them in developing those expectations.

I expected people to know what they were working towards, even if I never clearly communicated the vision.

I expected people to trust my judgment because I was the boss. After all, I bore the responsibility of the decisions.

I expected people to know what I needed from them.

I thought that people knew that I wanted the best for them, even when I didn't take the time to ask what they needed.

You see, I have never been a command and control style of a boss. I have never barked orders or been so focused on results that I didn't care about the people. I have always been nice, but I have not always led effectively. I have been self-focused many times, and I am convinced that even intending the best for others while in the midst of self-focus is as counterproductive as being a bully boss.

Servant leadership is not just about being nice. It is not about volunteering, giving people what they want, or letting the "fox run the henhouse."

Servant leadership is about investing ourselves into the lives of others for their good, not our own. It is about taking the time to discern your employee's wants from their legitimate needs. When you lead someone by serving them first, you have a chance to impact his or her life and they, in turn, will serve both you and your organization in ways that you might have never expected.

And that is servant leadership in a nutshell. If as a leader my expectations limit the people and the organizations that I am working in, both the people and the organizations are limited indeed. Only when they are unbridled of my self-focused expectations can they achieve far beyond what I could have ever hoped.

Next week, we'll talk about how many of the top performing companies in the world utilize servant leadership as their core leadership philosophy. In the meantime, to find out more about how you can advance your practice of servant leadership for yourself or your organization, don't hesitate to visit our Servant Leadership page.

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